Courtesy of The Whale Listening Project

October 4, 2021

An Afternoon with the Sirens of 114 Central Avenue

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On Saturday, Sept. 25, I was tired of everything. I wanted to get the laundry done by noon, but due to oversleeping and the sad reality of our dorm’s laundry room, the whole process took me several more hours than I planned. At the end of this I badly wanted to get away. A memory of whalesong was thrumming in my mind. 

Evening, earlier that week. After a rain there was a glorious sunset, a profusion of grey-blue clouds scattered like tattered sails over the opal light. As the chimes from McGraw began to sound, they were threaded through with a different kind of music. Shrill chirps and clicks; long, mournful bellows — as if campus had been transported directly into the mesopelagic zone. It sounded like something dying. It was transcendent.

The moment that I’d found out about it, I’d promised to myself that I would go listen to the whales at the Johnson’s new installation, Siren — Listening to Another Species on Earth. A collaborative work by sound artist Annie Lewandowski, artist and coder Kyle McDonald and scenic designer Amy Rubin, Siren was part of the Whale Listening Project at Cornell, running from Sept. 23 to 26. 

And so I went. Over the bridge and through the woods — that is to say, over Fall Creek via the suspension bridge past Risley and through the woods past University Avenue. The day was warmer than I’d expected. I stepped into the Johnson a sweaty and disheveled visitor, not a student journalist of good comportment. 

Still, I’d made it! That was the important thing. Instantly it was audible. Even from one floor down, in the sunlit lobby, I could hear that same singing — ethereal and disconcerting, pained, mesmerizing. 

I placed my water bottle in one of the collection bins. I readied myself. I went up the stairs.

According to an article by David Nutt of the Cornell Chronicle, “Lewandowski wanted to represent ‘the beauty of the interior world through the creative mind of the singer’ as well as ‘the harsh external reality’ that whales face.” And for good reason. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved humpback whales from “Vulnerable” to “Least Concern” status in 2008, several populations are still considered endangered by the NOAA

And so in the darkened room that housed the source of that siren’s song, what loomed over me was not photos or paintings of whales, nor even a sculpture — but a structure like a tent made of nets, stretched all the way from floor to ceiling. Light spilled over it from below, unearthly: now violet, now green, now a deep and abyssal blue. The sound came from above. At times high-pitched and piercing, at times low and resonant. Always haunting, like the spirits of those lost at sea. Like a shrine to forgotten gods in an underwater cavern. 

But this is our epoch. A human epoch. And in it, not even gods are invulnerable. As Siren’s description explained: “According to research at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 70 to 85 percent of humpbacks and North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine show signs of entanglement scarring.” 

Though the ropes were undoubtedly artificial, the lighting gave them an organic look, like kelp or coral. But this beauty was threaded through with their significance, entwined in the mesh like any strand of fiber. Not only a celebration, the installation felt like a memorial — and a warning of things to come.

At the back of the room there I found a padded bench, wide enough for perhaps two people. It didn’t seem too popular. I sat down and closed my eyes. 

Time seemed to dilate. Whalesong washed over me, ebbing and flowing. Occasionally other visitors would pass in and out, but in the room with the echoing music, I felt like a pebble in a stream. 

Eventually, I got up and climbed the spiral staircase that led to a small platform overlooking the installation. One could almost — but not quite — get a good view of the entangled nets, the spectral light. The sounds, however, were just as audible. I entertained fanciful thoughts of climbing up onto the rim of the staircase to get a better view, but decided against it. No vista was worth a fractured hip.

Instead, I climbed. Up, up, and out — or so I thought — of the installation proper. I had never been to the upper levels of the Johnson, and I thought I should at least get a look while I was here. The other exhibits seemed incidental. After that underwater temple, I craved open air. 

Imagine my surprise when, opening the door to the roof, I heard those wails and squeaks again. The siren’s song had followed me. I walked out towards the edge, and took in the view: the sun, the trees, and beyond them Cayuga Lake, with whalesong billowing out into the bright sky. 

A row of reclining chairs were laid out nearby. I walked over and laid down. A light-show played above, which on the way out I would learn was Cosmos, a homage to Carl Sagan by Leo Villareal. 

Eyes closed again, I noticed more nuances in the sounds. Sometimes, they resembled barks — a big dog and a small dog. Sometimes a rooster, or a door hinge. At one point, something that sounded like a call and response. It made me reflective. 

In my desire for escapism, had I smeared the humpbacks with my all-too-human ideas of otherworldliness? Unlike Homer’s sirens, whales have no wings with which to take flight. They are bound to the ocean as it warms and fills with nets, as much as we are bound to the Earth, for all our airplanes and attempts at rocketry. 

Just days ago, the U.S. removed 23 species from its endangered species list — due to extinction. And while the humpback may no longer be teetering on the edge, it seems an awful tragicomedy that we humans, once an insignificant population of bipedal apes, now hold their doom and salvation in the palms of our knobby hands. 

Yet they sing on, these “improvisational composers” who change their song with every breeding season, who leave us only to wonder at its meaning. A lullaby, a threnody, or a love song for life with all its terrors, from the blue light of birth to death’s watery cradle? Who is to say? And who is to decide how long they have left to sing? 

After a while I picked myself up from the seat and went back down the stairs, still with the music playing at my back, filling the air with the scent of imaginary salt.

Amy Wang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].